Theobromine, Chocolate's Answer to Caffeine

You may have heard rumors that chocolate contains caffeine, but that's not quite true; it's actually the theobromine that makes it special.

Theobromine: if it weren't for this magical molecule, chocolate might not be worth the effort. C'mon -- what's with the look of horror? If you've ever risked taking a bite of unsweetened chocolate (and what X-Choc fanatic hasn't?), you know that it's hardly a taste sensation. Admit it: it tastes like bitter dirt, doesn't it?

Like rhubarb, you have to wonder who in their right mind was able to bear it until they managed to mix it with enough sugar to get the ambrosia we all so love. Well, thank the caffeine cousin that added enough of a kick to make the original taste-testers look past the mouth-puckering bitterness to the genius within.

Pretty poison

Like all the best poisons, theobromine is an alkaloid, also known as xantheose. Doesn't have nearly as nice a ring as the T-word, though, does it? Similarly, the chemical doesn't have quite the effect that caffeine does, which is why chemists call it a "lesser homologue"; but it's got enough of a bite to keep your interest.

Don't make the mistake of thinking one of the ingredients is the element bromine, either, despite the name; that's just a coincidence. The name comes from the first part of the scientific name of the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao.

A nice eye opener

Theobromine makes up about 0.5-2.7% of most chocolates by bulk, but that only goes for the pigmented stuff. White chocolate has minuscule traces of the miracle molecule at best. We always knew there was something a little fishy about white chocolate, right? Now we know what is.

It may not be as strong as caffeine, but the Big T was enough to make chocolate the favorite drink of Aztec King Moctezuma, who supposedly drank 50 pitchers a day (you have wonder if someone misplaced a decimal there). The Spaniards liked it too, as you can tell by the fact that they soon spread it all over the world.

Bet you didn't know...

Although chocolate is everybody's favorite source of theobromine, the stimulant can also be derived from cupuacu (a cacao relative); the kola nut; the tea plant; and the guarana berry. Cupuacu can even be processed into a chocolate imposter called cupulate. (Any guesses as to why that name hasn't caught on?)

Theobroma itself means "food of the gods" (aptly enough), though no one understood chocolate's allure until the angelic alkaloid was isolated in 1878. Ironically, it was soon discovered to be a metabolic byproduct of caffeine anyway. Maybe this is why so many people drink coffee, despite the taste.

These days, the alkaloid has found medical uses as a blood vessel widener, a urination aid, and most significantly, as a heart stimulant. Now, see? Didn't you always know chocolate could make your heart go pitter-pat? Blame it on the theobromine!